Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup team captains are traditionally coy with comments about the order of play for the first day’s matches after the draw – spinning it in favour of whichever way things turn out for their side.

But Canadian captain Heidi El Tabakh has to be genuinely pleased that her No. 1 player, Leylah Fernandez, will start things off in tomorrow’s opening match of her team’s Playoff tie against Serbia in Kraljevo.

The visiting team is in a unique position of playing an ‘away’ tie without the host nation having the advantage of a home crowd as Billie Jean King Cup action takes place for the first time since the scourge of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

After Thursday’s draw at the Sport Hall Ibar in Kraljevo, No. 72-ranked Fernandez will start off against No. 162 Olga Danilovic to be followed by No. 230 Rebecca Marino versus No. 1 Serbian, No. 87-ranked Nina Stojanovic.

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

Fernandez, 18, and the 20-year-old Danilovic, both lefthanders, are aware of each other but have never played. “We’re similar,” Fernandez said. “I’ve seen her at junior and ITF events but we’ve never practiced together or played a match. It will be a fight. We’ll both want to do what we can to get a win for our country.”

Marino, 30, and Stojanovic, 24, have also never played and the Canadian said her match preparation will rely on scouting, likely in consort with captain El Tabakh and team coach Nathalie Tauziat, the 1998 Wimbledon finalist from France.

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

Remarkably, Marino is playing in a Billie Jean King Cup match against Serbia a full ten years since her 2011 debut in a tie held in Novi Sad. “It’s exciting I’ve been around this long and get a second crack at it,” she said. “What I remember the most was the very energetic Serbia crowd. So it will be a lot different this time.”

Putting things in perspective after a 2020 when much of her year was spent trying to get over a bad case plantar fasciitis, Marino added, “I’ve put in a lot of work in getting myself here and I hope I just let it go and enjoy.”

She also probably spoke for all the players when she described being a professional tennis player during this pandemic time. “There are the difficulties of travel – making sure you get PCR tests done on time and making sure you have the correct applications done for wherever you’re going. It’s been a challenge for players to travel and compete. That’s why being here is a nice opportunity and I feel very lucky.”

While the nominations are subject to change after the fourth singles matches on Saturday, the players named for the doubles were Sharon Fichman, 30, and Carol Zhao, 25, for Canada and Danilovic and veteran Aleksandra Krunic, 28, for the Serbs.

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

The indoor hard-court surface in the Kraljevo Sport Ibar arena is quite gritty. “The girls like the surface,” El Tabakh said. “It’s not super fast so they have time to set up and take their time before hitting the ball. Obviously Rebecca plays aggressive tennis – hitting the ball hard and taking the ball early. So does Leylah, she likes to take the ball early and use the angles. I think it’s going to play to their advantage.”

This is the first round of the former Fed Cup event since it has been re-branded as the Billie Jean King Cup. “I think it’s a great move,” said El Tabakh about recognizing the 77-year-old American, a legendary player in her day followed by decades of social activism for women. “It’s an honour to represent Canada in a competition named after such an icon. I feel like all the players from around the world are supporting the move. What she’s done for women’s tennis and women in general is incredible. It’s such an honour to play under her name.”

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

NOTE: Friday’s matches will be on Sportsnet One beginning at 8 am ET. Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron will be host with former WTA No. 28 (1993), and 1991 Canadian National champion, Patricia Hy-Boulais, as the analyst.

In Quebec, TVA Sports will be broadcasting the tie.